We breathe to live – we breathe to sing – but can we do it together? (Part 1 of 2)

This the hardest and probably the most important (at least to me) blogpost I’ve ever written.

About a year ago, when I cleaned up my website, I changed my mission statement a bit and put the original in a blogpost so that I wouldn’t lose it because it was some important information. The part that comes to mind right now is in the penultimate paragraph:

We breathe to live. We breathe to sing. We balance our breath energy in order to create a beautiful tone.

Our bodies need breath to function and we inhale to provide that energy source. We speak and we sing on the exhalation of breath. For singing, we control and balance the exhalation.

We balance that breath energy in order to maximize:

  1. how long we can sing before having to refresh the breath;
  2. how clearly and evenly we can sing on that breath;
  3. how softly or loudly we can sing, and make that choice depending on what the composer asks for and our personal interpretation.

The latter is what a lot of people refer to as projection, although I prefer to use the term resonance.

But right now, studies are showing that breath projection is a factor in the spreading of COVID-19. A few weeks ago, I attended a webinar on the topic sponsored by National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), Chorus America, Barbershop Harmony Society, and Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA), which featured presentations by Dr. Donald Milton, a bio-aerosol specialist at the University of Maryland, and Dr. Lucinda Halstead, an otolaryngologist at the University of South Carolina and the incoming president of PAMA. The webinar is available on YouTube and you can watch it here.

A terrific summary of the findings can be found in a blogpost written by tenor Zach Finkelstein in his blog The Middleclass Artist. Please read this for more detail, but to summarize the summary, I’m just going to come out and say that:

There is no safe place for us to sing together right now. Not in a choir, not in a show, not in the studio. Dr. Halstead has estimated 18-24 months before the combination of an effective vaccine and treatment regimen will make it safe again. Others have said that’s out there and that it should be sooner. I hope the latter view is the correct one.

But in the meanwhile, I intend to continue with online lessons through the summer and consider reopening the studio for in-person lessons on September 1. I will continue to monitor the situation – my husband is an ER doc, so I have a scientific source right at my elbow. If things improve, it might be sooner. If we have another surge, it will be later.

I have to tell you that this information upset me greatly because I love working with my students in person and preparing them for performances. I also love performing, and the thought of not doing it in front of a live audience is anathema to me.

As I mentioned in my last blogpost, I intended this post to be a look at the situation as we know it today and talk about why we should sing, even when there’s nowhere we can sing. I did the first part in this post. I have a lot on my mind about the second part and I will be writing that tomorrow.

In the meantime… 55281FC2-24DB-44C8-9198-317BA071344A

Vulnerability vs. Oversharing, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about oversharing being the projection your emotions onto someone as opposed to being vulnerable and having those emotions resonate with them. This brings me to the topic of projection.

People often ask me to teach them how to project (i.e., be louder), and I usually counter that what I want them to learn how to do is to resonate more. It’s a common question. For example, in a master class in Milwaukee some years ago, baritone Thomas Hampson was asked how he approached projection, and he said [paraphrasing somewhat]: “I don’t like to think of projection. It seems so one-directional. Bullets project. Missiles project. Small children thrown through plate glass windows project. But voices resonate.” In addition to amusing me greatly, that resonated with me.

Here’s an example of vulnerability that I witnessed within my Milwaukee studio. In the penultimate studio recital there, one of my students sang “Empty chairs at empty tables” from Les Miserables. He sang it beautifully. He was expressive, authentic, emotional, and he made people cry. He said to me a few months later, “Did you notice that I was crying?” and I told him that I didn’t, because it didn’t interfere with his singing and with his story. Often, singers and actors are told, “If you make the audience cry, you’ve done your job. If you cry, you just make the audience uncomfortable.” I generally agree with that – however, in his case, his emotion was so organic and genuine that it did not become uncomfortable. 

Then there’s the quintessential demonstration of oversharing that I came across a few years ago, when I judged lower college musical theater women at NATS. A young woman came in and sang her three pieces:

  1. Someone to watch over me,” Gershwin, Oh Kay! She decided to sing this while maintaining seductive eye contact with each of us judges. It was really uncomfortable.  And weird. She had two straight women and a gay man judging her and none of us were interested. The singing wasn’t particularly interesting – it was not as though she was coloring her voice or shaping the phrases to express a longing or a yearning – she was doing it all through contrived gestures and come-hither looks.

  2. “Honey bun,” Rodgers & Hammerstein, South Pacific. This involved a sailor hat. And interspersing her singing with shouting, “That’s mah little HONEY BUN!” Now, this song isn’t emotional – it’s a funny song. But the humor fell flat because it was inappropriate vocally and physically. And it depended on the use of a hat.

  3. And then the pièce de résistance, “Your daddy’s son,” Ahrens & Flaherty, Ragtime. For this one, she grabbed a blanket and bundled it up to look like a baby. She sang the entire song to the bundle, but as she got more and more agitated – it is a very dramatic song – the bundle started getting out of control and had there been a real baby in the blanket, it would have suffered from shaken baby syndrome. And vocally, she went out of control as well. She began to scream, “Only ANGER AND PAIN, THE BLOOD AND THE PAIN, I BURIED MY HEART IN THE GROUND –  WHEN I BURIED YOU IN THE GROUND.” The response it evoked from us was not, “That poor young woman, she feels so much grief and guilt,” but rather, “Oh my God, she’s going to have a vocal fold hemorrhage right here in front of us. Blood is going to start spurting out of her mouth.” And then it became funny. Unintentionally funny. On the final chorus, she burst into tears and could barely get the words out between sobs and when she got to the line, “You had your daddy’s hands – forgive me,” which is traditionally nearly whispered, she just screamed, “FORGIVE ME!” and I had to put my hands over my mouth so that I wouldn’t openly laugh.

It was the worst performance I’d ever seen at NATS. Or pretty much anywhere, for that matter. Worse than someone standing and doing nothing. It was not an authentic performance. It reeked of, “Look what I can do! I can be sexy, I can be funny, I can break your heart – just watch me!” What she should have been saying was: “I’m lonely and need someone to love me,” “I’m in love with a real peach of a gal – let me tell you about her,” and finally, “I hate myself for what I did, and I have no excuses – except this.”

She did not resonate with her audience. She projected her emotions – more like projectile vomited her emotions all over us. And like projectile vomit, we couldn’t wait to wash it off. (Was that too much? Probably.)

Tell a story. Tell the truth. It’s not about you as a singer/actor, it’s about the story that you have to tell. What is the core truth of it? What can telling this story offer your audience? What can it offer you as the storyteller?

Don’t hold back. Give your audience as much as you can, but make it real. Tell the truth.  Be real. Invest yourself fully and not on a superficial level of “watch ME!” or “listen to ME,” but “hear my story.”

Projectile Vomiting